Suicide is a difficult subject to discuss, including for Christians. When someone dies by suicide, his or her death is especially hard to talk about for family, friends, and those trying to comfort them. Do you mention how the death happened, or tiptoe around the subject? The way families and loved ones are handling suicide has been changing, with more people openly talking about the struggles that led to the loss of their loved one.
Pastor Jarrid Wilson, an associate pastor in California at the megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship, was a well-known figure in the Christian mental health world and co-founder of a Christian suicide prevention ministry called Anthem of Hope. The lead pastor at Wilson’s church, Greg Laurie, announced on Instagram the next day Wilson’s tragic death by suicide on Sept. 9.
Wilson’s wife, Juli, posted a heartbreaking Instagram video of her husband playing with one of their small children the evening he died.
In Juli Wilson’s post, she notes that “By 11:45 that night, my sweet husband was in the presence of Jesus.”
Shortly before Wilson ended his life, he made a final Twitter post, a retweet of an Anthem of Hope encouragement for those suffering to reach out and get help. Wilson’s final public online actions were to point others to hope and help.
Addressing the Question of Suicide in Christianity
The question of suicide in Christianity has been mulled over and addressed by theologians for millennia. The question of what suicide means for the eternal fate of the person who loses his or her life to it has plagued people in every generation. Families who are left behind have often received mixed messages or lukewarm comfort. It doesn’t have to be this way. Christianity offers hope and consolation in the confusion and despair left after a suicide.
I am a Lutheran, and the first place other than the Bible I go in times of theological need is to Martin Luther. In “Luther’s Works,” American Edition, Vol. 54, p. 29, Luther writes, “I don’t have the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil.” These words, written some 500 years ago, convey a surprisingly modern sentiment and way of talking about suicide.
Rather than saying the person who died “committed” suicide, as if this act were a malicious crime, now, much more commonly and compassionately, we say and write that someone has died by suicide, or lost their lives to suicide. In this, we mirror Luther’s language of the person being overcome, that they did not wish this end to their lives and their story, and that there is hope for those who love them.
In Christ, There Is Hope
In 1992, the Catholic Church updated its catechism’s discussion on this subject to read that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” Explaining this teaching further, Scott Alessi, former editor of U.S. Catholic, wrote, “The church acknowledges, however, that most people who die by suicide suffer from mental illness and are thus incapable of making a clear, rational decision.”
We know that people love their families and that suicide is not a deliberate move to hurt those around them. It is, instead, their pain and anguish robbing them of their ability to see the joy around them and any hope for the future.
The Episcopal Church has adopted resolutions to increase suicide awareness and prevention in its church body, stating:
We affirm our belief that, as St. Paul teaches (Romans 8:39), ‘Nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We pledge ourselves to collaborate with other religious bodies and secular agencies in educating ourselves to recognize and minister more appropriately to those among us who are especially at risk of suicide as well as those who are impacted by the suicide of others; and We urge that all levels of the Episcopal Church, parochial, diocesan, and national, accord high priority to the prevention of suicide in prayers and programming.
Christ’s love for all humanity was so powerful that he came to Earth and redeemed us from our sin, from death, and from the Devil. This love is not severed by illness. In Christ, there is hope and redemption.
Death, for the Christian, is not the end of all things. Rather, it is the beginning of eternal life. Sin and our fallen world do eventually end our lives, all of them, in one way or another, but this is never the end of the story. Christ’s sacrifice for us promises it won’t be the end. Wilson knew this truth, too, and this truth is what wins at the end, not any amount of despair or depression.
Help People Who Have Been Touched by Suicide
For too long, suicide has been in the dark, whispered about, handled with shame. And far too often this shame is borne by those left behind, those who survive, to grapple with in the midst of their despair. Reach out to those in your life who lost a loved one to suicide. Ask them about their son or daughter, husband or wife, their parent. Let them tell you about their life, about their death.
Listen. Pray with them. Hold them when they cry, and remind them that God’s love for them is there in this dark time, too. Check in on them months and years after this loss, because this pain doesn’t disappear. It can’t be pushed aside and forgotten, just like their family member or friend shouldn’t be forgotten.
Wilson’s life was spent trying to help others. I hope that in the aftermath of his death, his family is surrounded by people to take care of them and that they can remember the brightest moments of his life.
For everyone struggling against this foe, who feels it creeping closer, please let those around you know. They love you. They need you. They want to help you. Reach out. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You are not alone, and you are important to the people in your life. There is hope for you, too.